How HBO’s ‘The Leftovers’ Pulled Off a Miracle in Season 2
With its Season 2 finale Sunday night, The Leftovers achieved the unimaginable and turned a once-maddening drama into something truly special. Warning: Spoilers abound.
There are certain things shows just don’t do in their second seasons:
1. Pick up and move the entire cast and crew halfway across the country to a brand new location, essentially starting over from scratch.
2. Open the Season 2 premiere with an almost entirely silent 10-minute prologue featuring a pregnant cavewoman who gets bitten by a deadly snake.
3. Tell the rest of that first episode from the perspective of a family viewers have never met, waiting a full 39 minutes before we catch a glimpse of anyone who appeared in the first season and another nine before the show’s lead character comes on screen.
Yet that’s what HBO’s The Leftovers did in its season premiere earlier this fall, and it was just what the frequently frustrating show needed.
By the end of The Leftovers’ first season, the show’s creators, Lost mastermind Damon Lindelof and author Tom Perrotta, had written themselves into a tight spot. While the show had begun with a compelling premise—two percent of the world’s population has vanished without explanation or warning, and while some survivors are willing to move forward, others join cults to make sure the world never forgets—it had devolved into a dark and often depressing slog that became discordant with its summer time slot.
On top of that, the writers had blown through the plot of Perrotta’s book of the same title, leaving them with a blank slate for a second season that was by no means guaranteed due to dismal ratings that declined as time went on. But when HBO did end up ordering a second season, Lindelof and Perrotta clearly saw the wide open space laid out before them as an opportunity and seized it with a ferocity that was too often missing in season one.
One early signal that The Leftovers was moving in a new direction was the change in theme music. While each episode of Season 1 opened with a slow, operatic dirge accompanied by grotesque religious imagery, Season 2’s theme was a dramatic shift in tone.
Written by Iris Dement and first released in 1992, the song “Let the Mystery Be,” heard behind sunny photos in which certain individuals have faded into nothingness, perfectly captures how the show’s creators want us to feel about the questions they refuse to answer.
“Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where they all came from,” Dement sings with an upbeat attitude. “Everybody’s worryin’ ‘bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done. But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me. I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”
The first season of The Leftovers mostly concerned itself with world-building. How would those left behind react if 140 million people suddenly departed from the Earth? In the case of the central family of the show, the Garveys, the fact that all four members survived did not make them immune from pain. While Justin Theroux’s Kevin and his daughter, Margaret Qualley’s Jill, desperately tried to hold on to some semblance of normalcy, Kevin’s wife Laurie, played by Amy Brenneman and their son Tommy (Chris Zylka) both left home, searching for some kind of spiritual salvation.
For Laurie, that meant joining a mysterious cult known as the Guilty Remnant, who wear all white, chain-smoke cigarettes and plot disturbing ways to remind everyone else that the world ended when the Sudden Departure occurred. Of all the unexplained elements in the show’s first season, it was the Guilty Remnant that seemed to divide the fans from the detractors more than anything else. The group was so nihilistic and provoked such outrage from the people around them that it made it almost impossible to sympathize with anyone on the show. (In the new season, Laurie starts mowing down members of the cult with her car, perhaps channeling viewer fantasies.)
So when it seemed that The Leftovers had left the Guilty Remnant behind in season two, it came as a welcome relief. That was, until Ann Dowd’s Patti Levin showed up—after graphically slitting her own throat in season one—to haunt Kevin in his new home of Jarden, Texas.
If Mapleton, New York served as a sort of Anytown, USA in Season 1, Jarden, Texas, home of Miracle National Park, was just the opposite. As the only town in America that did not lose a single resident on October 14, 2011, Jarden has become a Mecca for those who want to feel safe. While hordes of spiritual seekers set up camp just over the town’s heavily-guarded bridge, Kevin and his new partner Nora Durst (Gone Girl’s Carrie Coons), along with Jill and a new adopted baby who conveniently showed up at their doorstep in New York, manage to purchase a $3 million fixer-upper in town, just next door to the Murphy family.
Like the Garveys, the Murphys were left untouched by the Sudden Departure, but they too have their own troubles that run deeper than anyone can tell from the outside. John (Kevin Carroll in a powerful, breakthrough performance) and Erika (recent Emmy-winner Regina King in yet another moving role) discover what it must feel like outside the Jarden bubble when their daughter Evie disappears along with two of her friends in what some fear is a “secondary departure.”
The most compelling episodes of The Leftovers’ first season came when the writers zeroed in on one character and told an entire hour-long story from their perspective. In just the third episode of the series, we followed the tragic plight of Reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) as he tried in vain to prevent the Guilty Remnant from buying his church and was repeatedly punished for his Good Samaritan nature. Three episodes later, we accompanied Nora to New York City, where she encountered a woman who was trying to steal her identity and met up with Holy Wayne, a self-declared prophet who hugged her pain away.
Season 2 takes this approach to the next level. While the first episode is told entirely from the point of view of the Murphys, the second revisits that same day from Kevin and Nora’s perspective. Then the third episode follows Laurie, who, still in New York, has left the Guilty Remnant and is trying to help others do the same. What develops over the course of the season is a type of intimacy with the disparate characters rarely achieved on a more traditional television series.
But for any drama to be truly great, it has to possess at least some sense of humor. Think of classic shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad — each one contained more laughs per episode than you might immediately recall. This much-needed lightness was always missing from The Leftovers, but it finally came to fore the in the eighth and most inventive episode of this season, titled “International Assassin.”
At the end of his rope with the ghost who will not leave him alone, Kevin turns to Erika’s father Virgil, a “a magical black man sitting out on the edge of town,” as Patti describes him, for a risky solution. He should drink a special poison that will stop his heart—temporarily—and give him the chance to come back to life as a new man.
What follows is an absurd, dreamlike view of the afterlife that takes place in what appears at first to be an ordinary chain hotel. After waking up in a bathtub full of water, Kevin finds out that he must assassinate Patti, who is now running for president under the Guilty Remnant party, first by shooting her in the head and then by pushing the innocent, childhood version of her into a well, before he can come back to life in Jarden as a new man.
From Erika digging up a live bird that spent three days in the ground to Matt getting paid to hit a man as hard as he could with an oar while screaming the name “Brian”—not to mention that opening prologue with the cavewoman—there were several scenes over the course of this season that may have prompted viewers to abandon the show for good. But if you made it this far, by the time episode eight rolled around you were either in or you were out. And from this viewer’s perspective, it was the first time the series truly soared.
And then, just as loyal viewers were all in on Kevin’s resurrection, the show took another 180 turn and dedicated the penultimate episode of the season to a relatively minor character from Season 1, who had made just one, albeit memorable, appearance so far this year.
If Patti was the ever-present “Big Bad” of season one, then Liv Tyler’s Meg Abbott was the secret villain of season two. After briefly showing up to rape and then almost murder Tommy in episode three, Meg, who was robbed of her grief by the Sudden Departure after her mother died just one day before it occurred, came back in a big way in episode nine, which was told entirely from her increasingly twisted point of view.
We ultimately learn that Meg’s militant wing of the Guilty Remnant has managed to infiltrate Jarden after all, convincing Evie and her friends to stage their disappearance in order to aid a convoluted plot that involves Meg driving them in an Airstream trailer onto the bridge and threatening to blow it up with plastic explosives, which turn out to be non-existent. Instead, in the season finale, the girls simply inspire the hordes of people camped outside the town to storm the gates, overwhelming the guards and physically destroying the imaginary safety net of Jarden.
This was the lesson that the Guilty Remnant, and the series as a whole, was trying to teach us this whole time. No matter what you believe, there is no such thing as true security. Whether it is an unexplained Sudden Departure of millions, a mass casualty event caused by human beings, or just the inevitable death that awaits us all, no one is immune, not even the 9,261 souls who were supposedly “spared” in Jarden.
This is a message put forward most directly by Evie’s twin brother Michael, during an impromptu church sermon on the anniversary of the Departure in the finale.
“Nobody disappeared from here on October 14th four years ago,” he says. “But they did before, and after. We are the 9,261. But we are not spared.”
The idea that no one is “spared” from suffering is not a particularly uplifting theme for a television show. But it is a powerful one. And it may explain why the show’s fan base has been relatively small yet disproportionately impassioned.
In the last scene of Sunday’s finale, Kevin, who has just come back from the dead once again, this time by agreeing to sing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” at the hotel bar’s karaoke night, walks through the decimated town and into his house, where literally every member of his extended family is waiting for him.
“You’re home,” Nora tells him as something approaching a smile crosses Kevin’s face. With several major questions left unanswered, it’s as close to a resolution as fans of this show were likely to get.
As of now, there has been no word from HBO about the possibility of a third season. But if The Leftovers returns again next year, it will likely have to move on and start from scratch once again. And that might not be such a bad thing.